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S4C

Volume 533: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2011

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss a pressing question in Wales. This debate about S4C—I usually pronounce it “Ess pedwar eck” and if I slip in to saying it like that, I hope hon. Members will forgive me as I will be speaking my first language—could scarcely be more timely.

I have an interest in this matter because part of the Welsh TV industry is located in my constituency. I sometimes tell people much to their surprise that the main industries in my area are agriculture, tourism and TV. Those areas hardly sit together, but there we are. I therefore have a particular interest in the matter. A properly resourced, managed and directed S4C is absolutely essential for the continuing renaissance of the Welsh language. It is vital to secure the plurality of the television provision in Wales because it is crucial for the Welsh television industry both in English and Welsh. Clearly, there is a relationship and an exchange of ideas and staff—they are co-dependent.

It is often left out of the debate that it is essential we have a properly managed, directed and resourced S4C for the future of the workers in the industry. Over the years—in fact, decades—workers in the television industry have lost their jobs and been moved. The unions have complained, studios have been closed and so on. Those people have a proper interest in the matter as well.

A moment ago, I said there had been a renaissance in the Welsh language. Welsh language television has played a significant part in that. Some years ago, I remember speaking at a conference on language planning in Dublin and explaining the utility of having children’s programmes, rock and roll music, drama and soap operas in Welsh and how that was adding to the growth of the language. A voice at the back said, “Are you seriously telling the conference that the renaissance in the Welsh language is all to do with having pop music in Welsh?” Well, that is clearly not the case. There has been movement from this Government, the previous Government and, significantly, the Government in Wales over the legislative status of the Welsh language. Significantly, the Welsh Language Act 1993, which was passed by the preceding Conservative Government, was a huge step forward and I am glad to pay tribute to all those people who were involved with that.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the growth of the language—the holistic approach operated by successive Assembly Governments—has necessitated the importance of a meaningful dialogue between Government here and colleagues in the national Assembly? Such an approach is necessary to promote the language agenda required to build the truly bilingual Wales that I know he aspires to.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Arfon replies, I should point out that this is a half-hour debate and that the rules are different from those for one-and-a-half-hour debates. The hon. Gentleman has secured the debate and it is his decision whom he allows to intervene. Back Benchers are not permitted to speak at all without seeking the relevant permission. Those are the rules on the half-hour debate.

Thank you, Mr Hood. I have been approached by various hon. Members, and I will certainly allow at least one intervention from each of those people who have contacted me. This debate interests people from across the political and language spectrum in Wales, and I will take further interventions. However, I will also talk very quickly, as is my wont.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. A consensus has been built in Wales over many years, which I am afraid is in jeopardy because of this decision. That consensus has been built on proper dialogue between people who properly have an interest in the matter. That is not confined to any language group, any class or any political party. I say that as a member of Plaid Cymru.

There has been a lack of clarity about the Government’s intentions and actions in the matter, not least in relation to elected Members such as myself. If I ask the Minister some naive and ill-informed questions, the cause of that may lie not with me but with how the matter has been handled. As with a good deal of the Government’s programme, the impression has been given that it is being made up as they go along, with backtracking and amendment often the order of the day.

I would like to ask some questions, and the debate’s timing in relation to the decisions that are now being made means it is essential we have answers as a matter of urgency. First, I scarcely need to say that the threats to S4C’s future have caused huge concern in Wales and across Welsh society—both Welsh and English speaking—particularly among those who are concerned with the language. We have seen a stronger galvanising of the campaign for the Welsh language than there has been for many years—stronger even than with the campaign for new Welsh language legislation that took place some time ago.

Does the hon. Gentleman welcome yesterday’s statement by a trustee of the BBC that guaranteed funding up until 2017 is on offer? That issue has caused great concern to all of us.

Indeed, I do. However, I will come on to some questions about that later.

As I was saying, there has been a campaign the like of which we have not seen for some time. A small example of that is the e-mail bombardment of members of the Public Bodies Bill Committee. I served on that Committee with the hon. Gentleman and others. I received 1,200 messages and I answered them all, which offered some relief to the people who sent them. Other Committee members from England were amazed at the volume of correspondence, the like of which they had not seen before. I doubt, in fact, that the Government predicted that supporters of S4C would be so galvanised.

I am not sure if the Minister and his colleagues knew the background to their decision on S4C—although perhaps he will correct me later. The Conservatives would have been wise to consult those in their own party who took the initial decision to set up S4C in the first place. Former Conservative Ministers took an honourable and constructive role in that decision.

I think I am one of the oldest lags in this debate, having written a document called “Television in Wales” in 1973, which became Labour party policy. It has been an extraordinary period, and the most extravagant hopes of those of us who were talking about the subject in 1973 have been more than realised. S4C has been an enormous success both artistically and as far as the language is concerned. I give the hon. Gentleman my full support and that of many members of my party.

I am very grateful for that point, which was very well made. As I said, the Conservatives and certainly the Liberal Democrats should have known better, with honourable exceptions. They should have read up on the history and on the conflict over the location of Welsh language programmes.

As someone who comes from the same town as Ian Jones, I am looking forward to great things from a Morristonian. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Governments persist in thinking that S4C and the BBC are not in competition with each other when they are? The idea that they will share producers and directors is of great concern.

I share the hon. Lady’s concerns, which relate to some of the questions I will ask about the involvement of the BBC in S4C. I am sure that that can be managed with good will on all sides and a proper degree of independence and funding for S4C. I will return to that issue in a moment.

I was talking about the history, the conflict over the location of Welsh language programmes, the long campaign throughout the 1970s and the promise to set up the channel in the first place. That broken promise, the conflict, the arrests, the court cases and the jailings led many thousands of reasonable and normally law-abiding Welsh citizens to break the law and not pay their television licences. That consequence was a matter of regret to us all as parliamentarians. In fact, some people went even further in taking what was always non-violent direct action. The Government could have read up on the social conflict engendered and on Mrs Thatcher’s first U-turn. Clearly they did not and they repeated their mistakes.

I have some questions for the Minister on the decision itself in the first place. What consultations were there with the people in Wales before the decision was made on funding, and subsequently on the inclusion of S4C in the Public Bodies Bill and its relationship with the BBC? Is he satisfied that all the relevant people were able to put their point of view forward? Were they heard, or does he concede, as some, possibly wrongly, suspect, that these decisions were made for reasons of policy here—cutting back public spending and cutting back on the size of the state—that had little to do directly with broadcasting in Wales? Indeed, some people suggest that they were heedless of the consequences to Wales, the Welsh language or the broadcasting industry. I have to tell the Minister that that is how it appeared.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate on this very important matter, about which many of my colleagues are concerned. Does he agree that the cuts facing S4C—even prior to the 2015 period, which has now become the 2017 period, for which we are supposed to be grateful—are actually greater and disproportionately greater than those facing the BBC, and that this is a total disgrace and shows the shambolic way the Government have treated S4C?

I agree that the cuts to S4C are probably going to be very deep indeed, and deeper than any reasonable broadcaster might be able to cope with given the long time scales of planning. I was just saying that that is how it appeared to people in Wales, but also to disinterested commentators. It is not just people who are taking particular sides who saw that. I am sure that that was not what the Government intended.

I would like to ask further questions beyond those about consultation, such as how the whole issue was handled. I will give a small example that will be familiar to those who were members of the Public Bodies Bill Committee. The agreement between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC was made on 13 September. On the morning of 15 September, the Bill Committee met to discuss S4C. The debate continued from 1 pm onward. The Minister who replied to the debate, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), referred to the BBC agreement in support of his argument. However, that agreement was not published until the afternoon of that day. It was too late to inform members of the Committee for that debate—although not the Report stage or on Third Reading—other than the Minister, of course, who had it in his hand. Was that completely coincidental? Why was the agreement not available on 13 or 14 September, or even on the morning of 15 September?

I raised this matter in a subsequent sitting of the Committee as a point of order, but to no avail. I have to tell the Minister here today that the impression given, rightly or wrongly, was of, at best, sharp practice. Consequently, he should realise that there are people in Wales who are now even more distrustful of the motives and action of the Government, and they will not be reassured by evasions or warm words. In fact, some might conclude that the wisest course of action for the Government would be to backtrack and restore at least part of the funding to S4C, to take S4C out of the Public Bodies Bill and, instead, consult and include any proposals in the forthcoming broadcasting Bill.

Given that they are unlikely to do that, and pressing on with my questions, I want to ask the Minister, and give him time to answer, rather than answer through his unfortunate friend, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who had to face the Public Bill Committee. He did his best to answer. I know he did his best to answer. [Interruption.] Perhaps I would not go as far as “brilliant”, but he is a very nice man.

On money, in the amended Public Bodies Bill, there is an undertaking for the Government to provide “sufficient” funding. This is mainly made up of a contribution by the BBC from the licence fee. I understand that that is supposed to be approximately £76 million in 2014-15. Will the Minister tell us what the contribution will be in 2015-16 and 2016-17, and the next two years? It is not clear to me, at least. I have heard two figures mentioned—£74 million, or is it £76 million? We are only talking about a couple of million, and we are used to talking in trillions in this place, but £2 million is a load of money. Will all the BBC money be devoted to production, as we have heard? Must it all be devoted to production? Must it all be spent in the independent sector? Are these not decisions that S4C should be taking independently, rather than being directed?

May I just say that I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to secure this debate? I am pleased with the attendance of hon. Members from all parties today, showing the depth of feeling in Wales about this issue. Will he please ask the Minister, if I can ask a question through him, what is the latest on the editorial independence of S4C?

I certainly will put those questions to the Minister, given that I have been speaking now for some 14 minutes. First, though, there is the question of administration. I understand that administering the channel costs about £20 million. From where is that to be obtained? I understand that the DCMS is to provide £7 million and that £3 million can be obtained from the channel’s commercial activities. What about the other £10 million? Where will that come from?

On management and governance, the point raised by my right hon. Friend is pertinent. We come to the matter of S4C’s independence. Again, the Government have assured us that S4C’s independence will be guaranteed. Will the BBC be appointing people on the operational side, which is my understanding? If that is so, how many people and at what level? What will be their function? Will they be there to look after the BBC’s interests? How can they avoid literally taking the BBC’s side? For example, if S4C decides to bid for a particular sports event that is in competition with the BBC—the Government are in favour of competition, are they not?—where will the loyalties of those BBC appointees lie? Will it be with the channel, or will it be with the BBC? Will they have a veto or a super majority, whatever that might be?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On the issue of competition with the BBC, I find that a very odd comment in view of the fact that the most popular programmes provided by S4C are actually provided for the channel by the BBC. Secondly, in terms of the independence of the channel and the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises in terms of BBC involvement, is it not the case that back in 1982 the S4C authority members were a minority on the board of S4C? Indeed, there were representatives from the independent television production sector. Yet S4C, launched in 1982, became a great success.

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. It is possible to do this. It is possible to do this without the uncertainty that the Government have caused by how they have handled this issue. We are uncertain and I look to the Minister and the hon. Gentleman to reassure us that the highly successful co-operation that existed before is obtained again in the future. I am glad that he made that point.

As I was saying about the BBC appointees, will they have a veto? What about reporting back to the BBC? Will it be a matter of providing quarterly information reports? That is one thing, I suppose, but day-to-day reporting about individual decisions is quite another, so where does it lie?

In respect of the board, I take it that they will all be DCMS appointees. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. What will be the BBC representation? What will the split be between the BBC representation and others? Will the Minister confirm that the board members loyalty will be to S4C and not to any body that appointed them? Is it not usually the case with such bodies that the first loyalty is to the body itself, whatever the sponsoring organisation? Surely, in the interests of securing the future, their loyalty must be to the channel.

Huw Jones, I think yesterday, said that S4C

“will be an effective partner for the BBC—managing itself but being accountable to the BBC Trust for its use of licence money and to the Government for the other public money”.

That is a very positive statement, and I hope that all hon. Members will take it as such. However, for this to be the case, all of the questions I put, and possibly more, must be answered before the people of Wales have any confidence that the Government are committed to ensuring the best possible television service for the Welsh-speaking audience and the future of S4C.

It is a great pleasure to appear once more under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am delighted to be taking part in this debate. It gives me a chance to outline the secure, new and positive phase in the distinguished history of S4C. Unlike the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), who, incidentally, I congratulate wholeheartedly and warmly on securing this important debate, I do not want to look to the past; I want to look to the future. For that reason, I welcome the appointment of the new chair, as well as the exciting announcement yesterday that Ian Jones is to be the new chief executive of S4C.

I want to dwell on the latter appointment, because it is indicative of the positive future of S4C. Mr Jones started his career at S4C in 1982 but went on to have an extraordinarily distinguished career in television broadcasting in the UK and in the United States. His current position is managing director of A&E Television Networks, which is one of the most successful cable companies in America and is based in New York. My hunch—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will correct me, if I am wrong—is that a man of the calibre of Ian Jones would not leave such a job to join a sinking ship. He leaves such a job to take on an exciting new challenge to rejuvenate a channel that sits at the heart of Welsh life and culture and to take it on to new challenges. The speech that Huw Jones gave yesterday to the Institute of Welsh Affairs was also given in such a climate. He talked about how S4C has to grapple with the challenges, but also about the huge opportunities provided by new technology.

I know my colleagues in Wales well enough to know that most of those taking part in the debate today know Huw Jones and Ian Jones well, and I suspect that they know that both those men are unlikely to be lapdogs of the BBC. Both will be S4C men, who will ensure that the channel has a successful future. My job as the Minister is to do all that I can to help that to happen, so I am grateful that the hon. Member for Arfon indicated that he is prepared to be corrected on any impression or misrepresentation that the Government do not have a strategy for S4C; of course we have such a strategy. I am also grateful to him and his colleagues for reminding the House that S4C is a great achievement of a previous Conservative Government.

I am grateful, too, for the important interventions from the distinguished and hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who has been involved in this debate for 40 years—let us put it like that—from the hon. Members for Swansea East (Mrs James) and for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies).

It is extremely generous of the Minister to pay tribute to my contribution to the formation of S4C but I am afraid it was a minor one. At the time, I resigned from the office of chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales, but that had no significant effect. However, a threat from another, much more prominent politician to starve to death had a galvanic effect on the Conservative Government.

I would not say that I remember the occasion well, but I know people who were involved in the debate, and they have told me about the important events which resulted in the creation of S4C.

The positive future of S4C was strengthened by our amendment to the Public Bodies Bill last month. The Bill will therefore ensure that S4C is funded at a level sufficient to meet its statutory remit. I am grateful to have the opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to a strong and sustainable future for S4C and for Welsh-language programming. We fully recognise the importance of the channel and its contribution to the cultural and economic life of Wales. As well as sustaining and promoting the Welsh language, the channel provides a focal point for the celebration of Welsh national events. On that basis, the Government secured the future of S4C in the comprehensive spending review.

We have heard a lot of talk about the amount of money available to S4C. The hon. Member for Arfon said that £2 million is “a load of money”, so S4C has 45 loads of money—it is funded to the tune of £90 million —and by 2015 that funding will have reduced to only £83 million. S4C gets £20 million-worth of BBC programming for free, and it has substantial reserves. I do not need to reiterate the economic climate in which we are all operating, and most sensible people agree that £83 million is significant funding given the tough economic climate.

A partnership with the BBC is the best way to secure S4C’s long-term sustainable future. My officials are working with S4C and the BBC Trust on the governance structure of the new partnership. Discussions have been productive and the agreement will, I am sure, soon be finalised. The amended BBC agreement laid before Parliament on 15 September confirms that the governance arrangements must not be made until discussions between S4C, the BBC and the Secretary of State have been concluded. Also, the hon. Gentleman can be reassured that we are committed to consulting on those governance arrangements with interested parties, including the Welsh Government and the people of Wales. We will consult all those who are interested, and we look forward to hearing his views.

The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs has produced a detailed report, which the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) agreed to. A key recommendation was that there should be no BBC staff on the day-to-day management board of S4C. How much pressure is the Minister putting on the negotiations to ensure that?

I would not use “pressure” in that context. The partnership is one of people who are interested in the future of S4C, and includes S4C, the BBC and my officials. I am sure that we will announce our conclusions shortly and then consult interested parties. I also take the opportunity to say how much I enjoyed my appearance before the Welsh Affairs Committee discussing the future of S4C.

To go to the heart of the issue, I assure the hon. Member for Arfon that S4C will remain an independent service. It will retain its brand identity and its editorial independence. Furthermore, the crucial role that S4C plays in sustaining the Welsh independent television sector will be maintained, with 100% of S4C’s commissioning budget being spent in the independent sector, as now. That is a crucial commitment which will ensure that S4C continues to support the Welsh creative industries and the wider creative community in Wales. In Wales, there is a clear-sighted strategy to support the many successful creative industries, which I wholeheartedly support.

On S4C supporting the creative industries in Wales, does the Minister have any concerns about the administration budget of S4C perhaps being cut by 10%, but the programming budget appearing to be cut by 25% due to decisions taken by S4C?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it is incumbent on me to say that, given that S4C will be independent of the BBC, it is certainly not for a Minister to tell the channel how to spend its money. Given the accountability and transparency agenda, S4C must have heard his comments and will no doubt be writing to him to explain that position, as well as to the hon. Member for Arfon, who might want to make similar points.

I have already mentioned the Public Bodies Bill and how the new clause will for the first time set in statute a requirement that S4C receives sufficient funding. The hon. Member for Arfon expressed concerns about funding continuing beyond 2015. As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire indicated in his intervention, there is effectively an agreement in principle that that funding will continue until 2017, although it still needs to be formally agreed—in effect, that offer is now on the table.

To step back from the details mentioned by the hon. Member for Arfon—if I have missed any, I will write to him—I want to add that S4C will remain independent. S4C staff will be appointed not by the BBC but by the S4C board and executive. S4C has significant funding and a secure future independent of but in partnership with the BBC. It has a great chairman and now a superb new chief executive. The future is bright for S4C. I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friends but to all hon. Members who have participated over the past few months in discussions about the future of S4C.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.